“We’re Not Just Students, We Are Organizers”
Black Youth Activism in Chicago
Fifty-five years ago, Chicago’s downtown was filled with Black students, parents, and organizers protesting racism in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Organizers argued that CPS superintendent Benjamin Willis was maintaining a segregated separate and unequal school system. Nearly 225,000 students stayed home from school on October 22, 1963, for the citywide “Freedom Day” boycott.
The desegregation protest in 1963 was about Black students gaining equitable access to resources. In addition to shouting “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to segregate!” organizers put forth a vision of the school system they wanted and deserved. “Every child should have an equal opportunity to get a good education,” the protestors insisted. Young Black children chanted, “What do we want? Books! When? Now!” After a protracted struggle, Superintendent Willis stepped down.
In the 21st century, young Black Chicagoans have once again taken to the streets in mass protests against school closings and state violence. As the city’s wide-open mayoral election looms in February 2019, it is worth remembering Chicago’s history of youth activism and the power and impact of its young Black organizers. Taking inspiration from the past, young Black Chicagoans today—and young Black women in particular—are leading new intersectional and intergenerational struggles for racial and economic justice. While struggles in the 1960s were waged against the inequitable distribution of government resources, more recent organizing has attacked the widespread disinvestment in Chicago’s Black and Brown communities by government institutions and corporate interests.
In 1968, five years after the “Freedom Day” boycott, Black young people again virtually shut down several city schools as tens of thousands of students organized a series of “Liberation Monday” walkouts. Responding to the long history of racist inequities in the city, students demanded a different political vision: community control of schools, more Black staff and administrators, and increased funding and resources for Black schools and communities. Most established political authorities in the city condemned these student-led demonstrations.
Nonetheless, the relentless organizing successfully resulted in the inclusion of Black studies curricula at many schools, changes in teaching faculty, and an increase in the number of Black administrators. These struggles were moments of consciousness-raising that had an impact on many young Black people in the city whether they were immediately involved in the protests or not.
In April 2013, Black students led a school boycott once again to protest plans by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and his appointed Board of Education to close roughly 50 public schools. The vast majority of these schools served Black students and communities. As documented in the ’63 Boycott documentary, for which I served as a historical adviser, in the 2013 boycott, leaders from Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools—a student-led group fighting for equal access to education—made direct connections between earlier boycotts and their protest.
In front of the Chicago Board of Education, students from the group exclaimed: “These school closings are racist and just like any movement, including the 1963 Freedom Day, we will not stop until we get the justice we deserve!” and “We’re going to make history again today, like the 1963 boycott . . . we’re not just students, we are organizers, we are powerful leaders, and we are the future.” While the protest did not ultimately stop the school closures, the experience energized a new generation of young organizers.
As with their predecessors, young people today are articulating what they are against, but also asserting bold visions of what they are for: community control of policing and public safety, significant investment in neighborhood schools and mental health clinics, living wage jobs, affordable housing, and afterschool and job training programs. They are also engaging in less-visible organizing work, serving as first responders and comforting families impacted by violence, canvassing their communities, leading political education sessions, and creating alternative community healing spaces.
And young Chicago organizers, many from groups associated with the Movement for Black Lives, have achieved significant victories. They’ve directly contributed to the creation of the new level one adult trauma center on the South Side and to the 2016 electoral defeat of former state’s attorney Anita Alvarez, who waited over a year to file charges in the police murder of Laquan McDonald. As this latter effort demonstrates, young organizers are increasingly influencing electoral politics as well.
In the last year, young Black organizers have staged protests on the floor of the city council and at fundraisers for the city council’s Black Caucus. These organizers are challenging elected officials to cancel plans for a proposed $95 million dollar new police training facility and instead spend these funds on neighborhood schools and community-based social services.
This October, Chance The Rapper, a 25-year old native Chicagoan who has worked with local organizers and supported voter registration campaigns, endorsed mayoral candidate Amara Enyia, a younger Black progressive candidate and community organizer. Building on grassroots voter registration campaigns, in the recent midterm elections in Chicago more millennials cast votes than any other single age bracket group in the city. In his speech endorsing Enyia, Chance commented, “Chicago politics is about people knowing what is possible.” From the “Freedom Day” boycott to “Liberation Monday” walkouts to the Movement for Black Lives, young Black organizers have expanded the political vision for what is possible in Chicago.
Elizabeth Todd-Breland is author of A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s and assistant professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
’63 Boycott will be screened at AHA19 on Friday, January 4, 2019, 3:30–5:30 p.m., in Stevens C-3 (Hilton Chicago, Lower Level). Todd-Breland and Tracye A. Matthews (Univ. of Chicago) will introduce the film and lead a discussion afterward.
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